How Does One Successfully Program Contemporary Music?

All Things Strings
April 16, 2009
by Graham Pellettieri

These days, one of the biggest challenges facing the classical music industry is figuring out how to successfully program new music. It is no secret that concerts that only feature contemporary composers' works and none of the traditional favorites—like Mozart and Beethoven—have a hard time filling the seats. So how do performing ensembles draw an audience to hear new music?

To find the answer, one needs to look no further than the Cypress String Quartet. Having the pleasure of attending the group's 2009 Call and Response concert earlier this month in San Francisco, California, I witnessed the talented quartet draw a crowd of diverse youngsters to listen to the premiere of Lento Assai— a newly written piece by contemporary composer Kevin Puts (b. 1972). The secret to the quartet's successful programming of contemporary music lies in its ingenious Call and Response program.

Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, Call and Response was designed to create new music that is based upon earlier compositions. Here's how it works: each year, the Cypress Quartet selects two pieces from the standard quartet repertoire (the "calls"), and commissions a third work (the "response") to be written by a contemporary composer. The commissioned piece is inspired by the two older works.

The program goes deeper than just the creation of new music, though. It even creates new audiences! Each year, the program offers several weeks of outreach presentations to students of all levels and backgrounds, and members of the community. Over the past ten years, Call and Response has reached over 16,890 students from middle and high schools around the San Francisco Bay Area. When all the presentations have been given, the program culminates in a public concert that features the premiere of the new work. With an average of around 500 attendants at each public concert, the audience is often as diverse as the music on the program!

The beauty of this Call and Response series is that it exposes younger generations to the new and exciting world of contemporary music. It helps them understand the significance of chamber music, and gives them insight into the process involved in creating new music.

So successfully programming new music is indeed possible, as the Cypress Quartet has demonstrated over the last decade, but figuring out how to do it yourself may require creating your own "response."

Graham Pellettieri
Music Editor
Strings and Teen Strings